When I write stories, I love using cliffhangers! They make the reader gasp and turn the page in excitement.
What is a cliffhanger?
Getting your readers to turn pages isn’t an easy thing to do. But once you’ve got the hang of it, your writing will definitely improve.
Cliffhangers act as bait to lead the reader from one part of the story to another, with more interest than before.
The two main ways for cliffhangers to make readers read on, is to either involve characters in a suspenseful, life-threatening situation, or to feature a sudden and shocking revelation.
Here’s how to write a fantastic cliffhanger:
1. Cliffhanger at the end of a book – good or bad idea?
So many writers make the mistake of leaving a cliffhanger at the very end of their novel. Unless you plan on resolving the cliffhanger in another book, don’t add it at the end!
If you end a book (or series) with a cliffhanger and don’t resolve it in another book, this will make the reader frustrated instead of content knowing the outcome of events.
2. Introduce a surprise that the readers will not expect
I love surprises in books, especially when I least expect it. And a way to introduce a surprise that readers will not expect is to use subtle misdirection.
Misdirection is a handy tool for writers when crafting cliffhangers.
Think about Snape from Harry Potter.
J.K Rowling used misdirection which led us to think that Snape was evil and preying on the shy Professor Quirrell who was actually behind it all.
Gently steering the reader away with misdirection will make it all more surprising once you reveal the twist.
Here are two tools to achieve misdirection:
- DEAD ENDS – Dismiss any outcomes your readers and characters thought they saw coming.
- RED HERRINGS – A red herring is a common tool used in mystery and thriller novels to distract the reader from finding the real culprit or reason for something.
Example of Red Herrings used in writing:
Mum: Tom, go to bed
Tom: What am I having for packed lunch tomorrow? Can I have pasta?
Mum: I’ll see, go up to bed now
Tom: Wait, what about chicken salad?
In this example, Tom is trying to distract his Mum so he could stay awake for longer.
3. Don’t make the reader confused
“Distinguish between mystery and confusion. It is good to keep the reader guessing. It is bad to keep the reader confused.”
Do not throw the reader right into the action as this will get them confused quickly.
No reader can hold the entire text of a novel in their head. Make sure you give them memorable and important points and clues throughout the book to help them understand the scene. Introduce main characters (or ones that will be part of your cliffhanger) first before introducing the less important ones.
Don’t overload the reader with too much information either – it can be hard to understand.
4. Use shorter sentences to increase tension
We all want to throw in our long descriptions and dialogues, but believe me – when writing a cliffhanger, shorter sentences are more effective!
Short sentences will make the reader process their meanings easier. The last thing they want is to go through a bunch of unnecessary text, missing the important information.
Shorter sentences increase the tension and pace, building up the suspense.
An effective cliffhanger should be abrupt, longer sentences will lose all the quality and suspense and it won’t be a cliffhanger at all.
Here are a couple of cliffhangers that will make the reader turn the page:
- A physical or emotional loss
- An unanswered question
- A shocking secret
- Unexpected news
- Leaving the story in a perilous situation
- A character revelation that contradicts something we thought we knew
- Something fails to happen
- Something fails to change
You want to make the reader read on, not scream in agitation. When writing cliffhangers, avoid clichés like:
- Someone’s calling my name. I wake up and… It was all a dream
- “The bomb is about to go off! I’m tired of saving the day. Let’s go to the swimming contest!” (readers get really annoyed when you break the excitement and write about something that has nothing got to do with the story)
- ‘And they all lived happily ever after‘ – What’s so exciting about the characters living happily with no hardships, enemies all defeated and everything going fine and dandy? If you want to make your book seem realistic, then you’ve got to understand that real life isn’t perfect. When your characters go through hardships, it makes them lovable because readers can relate.
- Make sure to resolve the main conflict in the narrative
- Make sure it is necessary. Some stories are brilliant without cliffhangers, and adding one will be pointless
- Don’t drag out the cliffhanger
- Keep it simple and clear
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